CANCELING CHURCH AS USUAL-- PART 1 (GOD EQUIPS & THEN EXPECTS COMMON SENSE)

‘Counsel and sound judgment are mine;
I have wisdom, I have power’ (Psalm 8:14)


Over the last week, heeding the recommendations of local public health officials, the CDC and WHO, many churches (EmPGH included) canceled on-campus and in-building activities. Many extended these cancellations to include Sunday worship encounters… many however did not.  As the situation “on the ground“ continues to evolve and worsen, some churches are still hesitant to close their doors and some intend to remain open to welcome congregants and visitors.

Although I can relate to the dilemma on many levels as a pastor, this decision is disturbingly shocking to me as a physician; particularly as an emergency medicine physician who works on the front-lines in this global response to this pandemic.  

Many churches consider the decisions of government leaders and public health officials as an infringement on religious civil liberties while others contend that it represents a faith-failure on the part of church leaders and congregations.  Others, still, are making  fear or angst-driven decisions, not out of concern for safety, but because somewhere the post-modern church has asserted that “inactivity” in the church building is somehow tantamount to having a “dead” or “dying” church.  

I have opted to divide this blog, 'Canceling Church As Usual' into 3 parts in hopes of dismantling any contention that continuing to physically gather together is somehow consistent with sound Christian or other faith-driven doctrine.  I would argue that churches, having been consistently identified as trusted community 'help' resources, have an even greater burden of responsibility; particularly in matters of public health and safety.

It is true that fear and faith cannot occupy the same spiritual space at the same time.  But it is likewise true that God felt the need to encourage us to actively seek after wisdom (James 1:5)—suggesting that His masterpiece creation often times abandons wisdom for the sake of passion and emotion.  I do not believe that any decision to remain open has been driven by greed or hubris, but such a decision nonetheless is absent of sound judgment, wisdom and reason.  

Following the common sense guidelines for public health and safety is not a forfeiture of faith or a compromise with respect to allegiance to the Word of God.  And borrowing from the Mayor of Seattle, WA in his response to his mandate that churches close their doors during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, his contention was that any religion that could not sustain itself beyond the walls of the building was, in fact, no religion at all.  

In fact, God’s Word specifically defines religion that ‘He accepts’ as practices that allow God's people to 'look after people in need in their distress and to keep themselves from being polluted by the world (James 1:27).  In other words, we are to take care of people and distance ourselves from the ‘sicknesses’ of the world.  Now obviously ‘sickness’ in this context is sin, but the sentiment is nonetheless relevant.  

God’s Word gives us access to the wisdom required to allow our faith-connection to God to give us the common sense to override our emotion-driven flawed thought-process.  Even though many Believers will not be at serious risk of dangerous illness if infected, the evidence is clear that our churches are also filled with others whose risk is great.  

Our inability to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 now will jeopardize countless others both inside and outside of the church building.  It will then overwhelm our community and hospital-based medical infrastructure; placing those with other non-COVID-related conditions at greater risk as well.  Who will care for the non-COVID but nevertheless chronically ill patient when all resources have been consumed treating COVID-19 patients who could have been spared infection had we only heeded God’s call for the wise and sound response?

Social distancing is logical and in no way should undermine the power of God’s people or their ability to meet the mandate to reach His people with the most powerful message on earth—the Gospel.  

As the church-- the 'ecclesia'-- the 'called-out' body of Believers-- we must resist the urge to view church closure as a ‘black’ or ‘white’ issue—as a matter of ‘faith’ or ‘failure’.  The truth is, this season which has been intentionally scripted by our all-knowing God, has moved His church into the grey-areas of ministry, where we must navigate in the fog of danger and uncertainty while still consistently, creatively, unapologetically, faithfully and courageously  working to engage, encourage and empower people to want to connect to the awesomeness of God!

Rev Christopher T Conti, MD is the Lead Pastor of Emmanuel Pittsburgh, and a licensed emergency medicine physician, author and Christian life coach.